Disability groups converge on capitol with numerous ideas

Concerns about how the Minnesota Legislature will handle the state’s massive budget deficit—and how that will affect people with disabilities […]

Concerns about how the Minnesota Legislature will handle the state’s massive budget deficit—and how that will affect people with disabilities —dominated a legislative forum Jan. 12 organized by the Minnesota State Council on Disability (MSCOD).

With the session’s start on Feb. 4, organizations have been hurrying to get priorities in place and bills introduced.

Rep. Thomas Huntley, DFLDuluth, chair of the Health Care and Human Services Finance Division, said the state’s $1.2 billion projected deficit, plus new legal questions about the governor’s $400 million unallotment process in 2009, will mean even more cuts to programs for people with disabilities. “This is supposed to be a short session, to handle a bonding bill and some budget fixes, so there will be no COLAs or cost-of-living raises. And there are going to be more cuts,” he said.

Some good news, Huntley said, will come when the federal health care bill is resolved by Congress. He expects some higher Medical Assistance payments for the state. But that may be one of few bright spots. Rep. Larry Hosch, DFL-St. Joseph, said those in the disability community must be active at the capitol this session, to remind lawmakers of their needs and concerns. “It’s inevitable that there will be difficult cuts, whether though legislation or through unal-lotment,” he said. “Participation is vital . . . There’s nothing better than seeing people in halls of the capitol and the State Office Building, making sure you don’t get forgotten.”

Anne Henry, Minnesota Disability Law Center, said the session looks “dismal” and the following biennium looks even worse. And cuts from the last session are still taking effect. “Many of the services people with disabilities need are paid for by public funds, so we’re always in the crosshairs,” she said.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been cuts from home and community waivers since 2002, including $42 million last session and then $14 million more from the governor’s unallotment. More than 7,000 Minnesotans are affected by cuts to personal care assistants (PCA), with 500 to 600 people eliminated from the program and an additional 6,500 people seeing cuts in hours. People with cognitive brain injuries and mental illness are among those most affected. The cuts were made by state lawmakers in 2009 and began taking effect recently.

“The current state deficit means even more cuts,” Henry said. “We need to protect those already hurting. An increase in revenue—[increasing taxes]—seems unlikely, but we have to talk about it. We have to find a balanced and reasonable approach.”

Many organizations that advocate for people with disabilities discussed their priorities for the coming session. Since the 2009 session ended, many disability and senior advocacy groups have focused on damage control and retaining what services and funding the communities have. However, Bruce Nelson, Association of Residential Resources in Minnesota, noted that while damage control is important, personal contact is needed with legislators throughout session. Otherwise, groups will continue to lose and people will be hurt. Nelson also reminded those present Jan. 12 that budget decisions will be political. It’s important for legislators to go back and tell constituents about the good things they did.

One group overseeing multiple legislative agendas and carrying a long list of its own priorities is the Minnesota Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities (MN-CCD). More than 100 groups and service providers belong to the MN-CCD.

Anni Simmons of MN-CCD said, the coalition has 65 areas to work on, including these priorities:

• Monitor transportation omnibus bill for accessibility and support Complete Streets Coalition to make streets more usable for all.

• Monitor hiring goals progress and look into accommodation pools that would improve state hiring prospects.

• Safe schools initiative and awareness of anti-bullying efforts, a bill that was vetoed last year.

• Restore funding for Region 10 Quality Assurance. The Mission of the Region 10 Quality Assurance Commission is to develop and implement a person-centered process that significantly enhances the quality of life for persons with developmental disabilities. This process is to be person-driven and responsive, assuring basic safety while promoting continuous improvement in the system and the service it provides. But the program had its funding cut.

Other groups outlined their priorities Jan. 12. Sue Abderholden, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said that restoring General  ssistance Medical Care (GAMC) is a top priority because 70 percent of those enrolled have mental illness or chemical dependency problems. GAMC is slated to end March 1, but could be extended until the end of March. NAMI also believes there is a need to make sure there is instant coverage for those medical services, with no premium or co-pay, and a continuation of full mental health benefits.

NAMI will also insist on maintenance of effort for counties with funding of mental health care. Counties are asking to be relieved of the cost, but it’s such a high percentage of mental health funding that it may be difficult to replace what counties currently pay.

In the criminal justice system, a priority is to get funding for discharge planning from jails, and make sure that those in the workhouse can access MinnesotaCare. Otherwise, it’s better to stay in prison system. The organization is also pushing for training of police officers and school liaison officers to work with person with mental illness, and seeking improvements in the mental illness defense in criminal cases.

Year-round education for children in mental illness programs and a mental illness curriculum for all schools are also important to NAMI. Yet another issue the organization is monitoring in 2010 is to make sure no weakening of recentlypassed rules on restraints.

The Department of Human Services Board on Aging has its top priority as advocacy and protective services for vulnerable seniors. The board plans to combat cuts that are forecast, particularly those that will affect safety.

The Brain Injury Association will support increased revenue, monitor cuts in waivers and personal care, maximize use of tax dollars and look for reforms, according to Jeff Nachbar. The organization will also work to prevent motorcycle injuries. While past efforts to pass mandatory helmet laws have failed, the group may seek increased insurance costs for those who ride without helmets.

The Minnesota Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is looking at rules for required reporting by doctors, which can keep some from seeking help. The organization also wants more funding for diagnostic clinics.

The Multiple Sclerosis Society (MS) is seeking increased access to treatment, physical/occupational and speech therapy, and to prescription drugs, to treat MS. Another issue for the MS Society is to support care givers by creating a care giver coalition Courage Center is pushing for a Medical Assistance rehabilitation buyback bill, which would lessen cuts from last session to 4.5 percent rather than 6.5 percent.

The Office of Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities is working to increase protections for vulnerable adults, particularly financial abuse. The group also hopes to increase penalties for attacks by caregivers. Another priority is to seek background checks for PCAs, make sure those who provide care are screened.

The Minnesota State Council on Disability is conducting a follow-up on bills from last year to make clear that accessibility provisions of building code apply statewide.

Advocating Change Together’s Remembering with Dignity project is seeking $1 million. This would provide markers for 7,500 unmarked graves of people who died in state institutions.